The Most Wonderful — and Destructive — Time of the Year

The single most climate-destructive annual event of the year is… Christmas.

Christmas is a climate disaster.

Now, the Christmas season is my favorite time of the year. I love Christmas—the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the memories, the occasions with family and friends. I listen to religious carols throughout the year when I write (as I’m doing while writing this blog).

But, celebrating Christmas as we in wealthy Western nations do harms the planet more than at any other time of the year.

Yes, attaching an annual climate catastrophe to Christmas is a Grinch-y thing to say. But considering the urgent need to change our ways in order to slow the damage our descendants will endure, we should attend to the carbon usage and waste of:

  • Un-recyclable wrapping paper. I wonder if that Santa “paper” from 10 years ago is part of an island-sized plastic blob in the Pacific.
  • Extra food production and waste (how many times have you brought a dish to a party that was half eaten, not because it was bad but because there was simply a glut of food?).
  • Christmas light usage. Even with LED lights, the collective energy drain is enormous. And notice how the upscale shopping center managers that encircle trees with all those pretty lights will cut the lights off at the end of the season rather than spend the labor money to unwrap the trees.
  • Driving and flying are the two most carbon-intensive means of travel. And from Tulsa, for example, train service—a much more carbon-efficient means of transportation—is nonexistent.
  • Gift-buying, of all presents wanted and unwanted. Consider the materials used and the shipping costs in carbon. And, of course, the damage done to the environment of ensuring a profitable year for retailers who rely on Christmas to evidence its status as the pinnacle of a consumer society. In particular, so many toys, made of plastic, are broken within weeks of usage.
  • The land usage, water consumption, shipping, and the carbon stored in the trees added back to the atmosphere when the trees are burned.

You get the picture. And one can quickly see that individual actions are important, but systemic changes are required if we want to make a real difference.

I recall my favorite scene from the Peanuts holiday specials. Charlie Brown, searching for meaning in life, from his pit of despair, cries: “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?” Linus replies that he does, takes center stage, and recites the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Linus’ heartfelt, humble recitation, changed everything.

Now, imagine the planet is begging Charlie Brown’s question, revised as: “Does anyone know how to celebrate the birth and life of Jesus without destroying me?”

The answer is yes, but the cultural and economic changes necessary for wealthy Western “Christian” nations required in order to celebrate Jesus without an annual catastrophic climate event are profound.

If you’ve resonated with any of the above, here are a few articles to consider (and I’ll note that a Google search regarding green initiatives in churches pulled almost exclusively from the UK and Canada):

“Six ways climate change is waging war on Christmas”

“From turkey to tinsel, here’s the truth about how you can have a more climate-friendly Christmas”

“Climate change Christmas Carols” (a little wicked satire)

“The twelve carbons of Christmas”

“The carbon cost of Christmas”

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.


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